David LeFevre wants you to know that fish can be cool. That’s probably no great surprise coming from the new chef at the Water Grill, certainly one of the best seafood restaurants on the West Coast and probably in the country. But LeFevre doesn’t mean cool in the sense of hip and trendy and new. He means it literally -- as in room temperature.
LeFevre, an energetic 32-year-old protege of Chicago’s Charlie Trotter (he also includes on his resume brief stints with chefs as diverse as Ferran Adria and Tetsuya Wakuda), is using low-temperature cooking techniques to break the traditional seafood stranglehold of grilling, deep-frying and sauteing.
Cooked his way, fish may come to the table a little cooler than you are used to -- especially if you’ve only tasted it piping hot from the coals, fryer or skillet. But more importantly, it is also silky and voluptuous, with a rich, pure taste. Though the fish is cooked to the point that it is firm enough to flake, it tastes and feels like something halfway between sauteed and sushi.
“When you slow-cook fish, the flavor seems much fresher, the taste is much cleaner,” says LeFevre. “When you saute or grill, you get caramelization and browning, which are delicious, but that’s a much more developed flavor. Texture-wise, it is really different. When you slow-cook fish, the flesh comes out silky soft, almost buttery.”
You can just about see the difference. As far as I’m concerned, all fish are beautiful -- from flounder sashimi to deep-fried fillets -- but these cool fish emerge from cooking without a mark on them, pale and creamy-looking. And though at the restaurant LeFevre plates them in the multilayered, multi-sauced manner so beloved of young chefs, that’s not really necessary. At home, you’ll need only the barest accompaniment to create an elegant main course.
For the home cook
Perhaps most amazing of all, any of these slow-cooking techniques can be used quite easily in any kitchen. They call for no special equipment whatsoever; if you have a skillet, a pot and a steamer basket, you’re ready to go. Most of them take only 15 to 20 minutes to prepare.
The simplest of all the techniques is the one LeFevre calls cold-poaching. Here’s what you do: Bring stock to a boil. Put the fish in a bowl. Pour the stock over it. Turn the fish over once, but otherwise leave it alone until you’re ready to serve. Gradually, the hot stock will gently cook the fish. What’s really great is that as the stock cooks, it cools too, which practically ensures that the meat won’t dry out.
For poaching, you’ll want to use fish that are fairly lean and flaky -- flat fish like halibut and sole are good, and so are rockfish and sea bass. Because cold-poached fish come out even cooler than the others, this technique is best used when you’re going to combine the fish with other cold or room-temperature ingredients, as in salads. And because you’re using leaner fish, sauce it with something that has a little richness -- a mayonnaise-based dressing or yogurt is ideal.
Slow-roasting is almost as uncomplicated. This consists of nothing more than placing the fish on top of cooked diced vegetables and sticking the whole thing in a 225-degree oven. Timing is somewhat more critical with this technique -- watch for when the fish just begins to flake -- but because the oven is at such a low temperature, there is a greater margin of error than when you’re broiling or sauteing.
For this technique, choose fish that has more fat, since the hot air of the oven can be drying. Salmon and char are great, and so is yellowtail.
A meaty fish like halibut will work too, but be sure it is the bigger Alaskan halibut, which comes from colder water. Because you’re using a fattier fish, balance it with a sauce that has a little acidity, such as a light vinaigrette, or even something as mildly tangy as sour cream or mascarpone.
The other two techniques are a little trickier, but only because you will probably need to play around to regulate the temperature.
The first of these can be done pretty much by touch. Confiting (it sounds so much more appetizing than “oil-poaching”) means cooking the fish very gently in 120- to 125-degree olive oil. The easiest way to check the temperature is by sticking your finger in it. It won’t burn you. At this temperature, the oil will feel like a hot bath.
This isn’t one of those asbestos-fingered chef things, either -- you should be able to leave your finger in without becoming the slightest bit uncomfortable.
Just as with the slow-roasting, you’ll want to use fatty fish for this technique. Yellowtail is amazing, and so are char and sea trout. Or use meaty fish such as cod, albacore, swordfish and ono. This technique results in an even richer piece of fish, so your accompaniments should be even more frankly acidic than those used for roasting. LeFevre serves rich, confited yellowtail with a lemon-spiked carrot puree and an Asian vinaigrette; hijiki seaweed adds a nice textural contrast.
While LeFevre says that the temperature for the confiting is that of a hot bath, he describes the correct temperature for slow-steaming as when the steam doesn’t come rocketing out of the pan, but billows out slowly “like a Jacuzzi” (he may be new to California, but he already seems to fit right in).
Since it’s not easy to set the flame on most home stove burners low enough for these two techniques, try using one of those perforated flame-tamers, which will temper the heat and allow you to use a medium flame, which will be more stable.
Use the same fish for steaming that you did for poaching -- flat fish like halibut and sole and flaky fish like rockfish and sea bass. Because the fish will be a little warmer than with poaching, you have more freedom as to accompaniments.
Still, you will want to add some richness, but remember that this can be done with a sauce (steamed bass is wonderful with a horseradish cream) or even with a vegetable -- there are few foods with a more luxurious texture than roasted beets.
With all of these methods, the thing to watch for is the moment when albumen, a protein, begins to form tiny white beads on the surface of the fish. When you see it, pull the fish from the heat immediately.
The science behind these techniques (and why it works so well with seafood but not at all with other meats) has to do with the special way fish are built. Unlike other meats, the muscles in fish consist of very short fibers separated by sheer sheets of connective tissue with very little fat.
When raw, protein strands resemble little balls of string. As they heat during cooking, they relax and unfurl. Since they are packed so closely together, the strands inevitably bump into each other and form bonds. This is what makes cooked flesh feel firmer than raw. The higher the temperature, the tighter and more plentiful these bonds become -- eventually to the point that they will begin squeezing out the liquid in the meat (this is why something that is overcooked seems dry).
In addition to the pure protein, most meats contain a lot of connective tissue. These must be cooked to a high temperature to soften, or gelatinize (which starts to occur only at about 140 degrees). Though this requires risking drying out by overcooking, it is balanced in most meats by the presence of fat, which melts and moistens.
The art of slow cooking
Fish doesn’t need to be cooked to as high a temperature as, say steak, because it doesn’t have connective tissue that needs softening. Furthermore, it mustn’t be cooked that high because it doesn’t have the fat that would keep the meat moist.
The result of this slow cooking is flesh in which the proteins have linked and firmed all the way through, but not so much that drying has begun. Think of it like frying an egg -- when you do it at high heat, by the time the yolk has set, the edges are frizzled to a crisp. Fry at a gentler temperature, though, and the egg will cook evenly so that when the yolk has thickened, the white will still be moist and silky.
But while all fish are created similar, they are not all made the same. Some have more fat than others. Some have longer muscle fibers. The shortest and flakiest tend to belong to lazy fish that lay around on the bottom (halibuts and soles), while the longest belong to those meaty torpedoes of the sea (tunas and swordfish).
That’s why some of the cooking techniques work better on some fish than on others. Whatever combination you use, keep a close eye on the fish and resist the urge to push the temperature. These methods make it much harder to overcook fish, but they don’t make it impossible.
And remember, if anyone complains that the fish isn’t hot enough ... well, you know, that’s cool.
Four easy techniques
Technique: Pour hot stock over the fish and let it stand until cool.
Fish: Choose fish that are flaky and not too dense -- flat fish such as halibut and sole; rockfish, as long as the fillet is not too thick; and sea bass and salmon.
Accompaniments: Since this fish will be closest to room temperature, it is good with salads.
Technique: Steam over 150-degree water.
Fish: Same fish as cold-poaching.
Accompaniments: Something with a little fat -- mayonnaise, yogurt, olive oil, aioli.
Technique: Roast at 225 degrees.
Fish: Fish with high fat -- salmon, yellowtail (hamachi) and sea trout -- or meaty fish such as Alaskan halibut (California halibut is too lean and flaky).
Accompaniments: Something with a touch of acidity, such as vinaigrette or a little sour cream.
Technique: Cook in 120- to 125-degree oil.
Fish: Fatty fish such as yellowtail, char, salmon or sea trout, or meaty fish such as cod, swordfish and ono.
Accompaniments: Something with acidity to cut the fat, such as vinaigrette.